If you are an over-the-road driver you spend perhaps 300 days a year away from the people you are closest to in this life. On the road, you have the CB, fuel attendants, dispatchers and waitresses for company. Now these people may be good people, but you don’t have the time to find that out. You live under the constant pressure of deadlines and schedules that often border on the impossible-to-maintain.
According to a consensus of experts at a recent safety conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, you do one of the unhealthiest jobs in America. Indeed, you do the second most dangerous job in America. All of the ailments at large in society are visited on truck drivers in spades. Poor diet, lack of exercise, unrelenting stress punctuated by periods of boredom, inactivity and erratic sleep patterns can lead to diseases of the body and the mind. Truck drivers are prone to heart attack, certain cancers and divorce, all at higher rates than the general population. According to Dr. Paul Gobiel, a psychologist with the Quebec Vehicle Insurance Board, “American truck drivers have a life-span years shorter than the general population.” This is the life you have chosen to lead. How in the world can you have a positive attitude?
The answer may lie in the reasons you chose to lead a truck driver’s life. Consider Earl Evans. His father was a driver, and Evans grew up loving trucks. His home is filled with hundreds of truck models and shelves full of trucking memorabilia. In the garage sits an immaculate W900 Kenworth. He has customized his truck and flatbed himself, turning an already beautiful truck into a traffic-stopper. Evans loves to truck.
But despite growing up in the profession, Evans has every reason to have quit. In February 1996, he fell off his trailer and severed both hands at the wrists. The bones of the wrists pushed through the heels of his hands as he tried to break his fall. Doctors told him he would never drive again. There was even talk of a double amputation.
One year later Evans was back in his truck, driving with his arms still in casts. He closed the doors on his van with his forearms for the first eight months after going back to work. Now, four years later, Evans is hauling just-in-time freight for Saturn and making his living trucking again. When asked what made it possible for him to prove the doctors wrong and return to trucking, Evans said, “When a bad situation is thrust on you, you have to deal with it. You learn to compensate and get through, or you don’t get through. Getting hurt was a real eye-opener. There’s always somebody worse off.”
Evans overcame very long odds to get back in a truck. Without the will to fight and the mental discipline to overcome the odds, Evans might well be sitting at home, with hooks instead of hands. It takes a strong will and mental discipline to live the life truck drivers must live in order to do the job they want to do. When the ante goes up, that will and discipline either get ratcheted up to meet the challenge, or the game is lost.
Few drivers will face the difficulties Evans faced, but the lesson is clear. The daily 600- or 700-mile grind is hard. To make the best of it, you’ve got to change what you can. Like Evans, the disciplined and willful come to the conclusion that their fate is in their hands. Only by taking responsibility for your life will it get any better.
But there is another side to every story. It is possible to succeed in this industry without having to overcome catastrophes similar to what Evans experienced. It is possible to succeed and still struggle to maintain the constant positive attitude a life on the road requires. David Cramer is successful. In his words: “I’m 50, own my truck and two trailers, plus my car, free and clear. I’m in the top 5 percent income range of my industry. You’d think I’d be set, and happy. But not so. To get past all the things I’m not happy about, I had to do two things. To find the strength to do it, I had to get mad. After that, I had the strength to figure out how. Owner-operators are not getting rich and we don’t have control over our destiny.”
Cramer’s story is that of a man who turned the negative emotion of anger to good use. Unsatisfied with being a successful owner-operator, Cramer is now trying to buy and sell the loads he hauls. The attitudes that made him successful are the same attitudes that keep him from resting on his success. They are the same attitudes successful fleet drivers have. They have learned to turn their anger at poor working and living conditions to good use. They have perhaps learned to reconnect with the reasons they became drivers in the first place. They have taken control of their road life.
Whether a driver runs along smoothly every day, has a catastrophic accident or is bent on overachieving, his life is filled with stress. According to Dr. Steve Burns on his website http://www.teachhealth.com, “Stress is synonymous with change.” The constantly changing life of a truck driver amounts to unrelieved stress. Burns explains, “If you are working 16 hours a day you will have reduced your available time for rest. There will not be enough time for the body to fix broken cells or replace used up brain neurotransmitters. If you continue, permanent damage may be done. The body’s fight to stay healthy in the face of increased energy that you are expending is major stress.”
Stress and its handmaiden, lack of sleep, cause physical damage to the body as well as affecting one’s state of mind. Stress may lead to anger or depression. But it can also lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and other major diseases.
Burns, a specialist in occupational medicine, notes that stress often leads people to the use of coffee, sugar, alcohol and other stimulants and depressants to mask the effects of stress from themselves. The artificial balance gained by such use is temporary and does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Thus if there is one thing overstressed drivers can do to relieve stress, it is to eat a healthier diet. But given the fact that drivers have very little opportunity to control schedules and living conditions, and often have the added burden of being unable to affect problems arising at home, the question is, how do truck drivers stay mentally and physically healthy? And how do they avoid dying young?
Truck drivers have given up a great deal of control over their health and lives to do the job. Most human beings do the same to some extent. But the nature of the profession puts drivers at a much higher risk than the general population. Smart drivers understand this. They are not defeated by the negative aspects of the job they have chosen. They accept that their choice is a tradeoff and find ways to maintain the physical and mental balance.
As the experiences of Evans and Cramer suggest, success and love of the job may compensate for the constant stress and unhealthy lifestyle. But every driver needs to examine his diet, level of exercise, sleep patterns and emotional life, and find ways to put some balance back into an extremely unbalanced lifestyle. To a great extent this requires the will to change and the self-discipline to make those changes.